Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Now that the “comprehensive immigration reform bill” has gone down in flames (reminding us that “comprehensive” is Congressese for “will piss absolutely everyone off”), it seems a good time to take a moment to think about the deeper issues in immigration. After all, before we can undertake to our immigration problems, we should probably think about what kind of nation we want to be, and what kind of stance we should take towards those who want to come here.

The United States is like no other nation on earth. More than any other nation, even Australia and Canada our colonial brothers, we have transcended ethnicity and culture to become a truly pluralistic society. We are a nation whose culture and citizenry is woven from nearly every culture and race on the planet. That reality has profound meaning for the debate on immigration, and it demands that we treat it with the respect it deserves.

The first step in doing this is to recapture a real sense of why our nation really is not just “a nation of immigrants” but “the Mother of Exiles” in those immortal words honoring the most beloved symbol of American freedom and opportunity. We need to understand why immigrants are central to our identity as a nation, and why the freest possible immigration policy is vital to our future prosperity and even to our survival.

We Americans are not, and have never been, conquerers. We “do” Empire really badly (as we’re proving yet again in Iraq). But we are, and always have been, something far more subversive and dangerous to the tyrants of the world than mere conquerers: we are Dreamers who have managed to make their Dream a reality and who invite the rest of the world to join the Dream. We must recover that central truth and once again shine forth as the beacon which draws to our shores those willing to risk all to gain all.

Our policies of openness and freedom combined with our willingness to welcome those sharing our vision from around the world have led to incredible prosperity and innovation. America is not merely the richest nation the world has ever known, it is also the most innovative. With 4-5% of the world’s population, the United States is responsible for 40% of the world’s Nobel laureates, as good a measure as any for its dominance in science and technology. Even the Internet itself and virtually all the technologies that underlie it are the product of that amazing American engine of progress and prosperity.

And all of it is a consequence—philosophically and practically—of being the Mother of Exiles. Of being not just a nation that welcomes wealthy, talented immigrants, but one that welcomes “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” many of whom seem at first glance to deserve being called “wretched refuse.” Why is it vital to our identity and prosperity to welcome poor immigrants coming more for economic opportunity than to escape political or religious oppression? Because it is precisely these immigrants, these poor desperate people willing to leave everything they know for just the chance of a better life, who become the torch bearers of liberty.

As anyone knows who has spoken to one of these new Americans, they know the value and cost of liberty and freedom more than most. And they’re more willing than most to work hard to achieve the American Dream. They are the vital fuel of that great engine of prosperity. And many of them have risen from poverty to the ranks of the mighty. The wealthy, the successful, and the educated should all be welcome, but—in a great paradox—it is precisely those poor and humble who are the most vital to us, because it is only they who truly appreciate the beauty, rarity, and subversive power of the American Dream.

In the months to come, I’ll examine the best arguments for limiting immigration, and explain why immigration is central to our identity as Americans and vital to our national survival. We must move beyond mere “reform” of our immigration laws to a radical revision. Our laws must again reflect the principles of the New Colossus, returning us to our rightful place as the beacon of liberty and prosperity for the world. A beacon which shines not merely to be seen, but to draw those around the world who have the courage and desire to join us in building the land which is—in the timeless words of Abraham Lincoln—the last best hope of earth.